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Congress Hotel Union Workers Call Off Decade-Long Strike

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A Congress Hotel worker walks the picket line during a decade-long strike that ended on May 30, 2013. (Credit: CBS)

A Congress Hotel worker walks the picket line during a decade-long strike that ended on May 30, 2013. (Credit: CBS)

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Updated 05/30/13 – 9:58 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – A longstanding labor dispute at the historic Congress Hotel ended on Thursday, when the union called off a decade-long strike.

WBBM Newsradio’s John Waelti reports, for the past 10 years, union workers had been on strike at the Congress Plaza Hotel on Michigan Avenue, after the hotel cut employee wages, froze healthcare benefits, and sought to bring in minimum wage contract workers to replace union workers.

Wednesday night, the union informed the hotel it was calling off the strike.

“The decision to end the Congress strike was a hard one, but it is the right time for the Union and the strikers to move on. The boycott has effectively dramatically reduced the hotel’s business. The hotel treats their workers and customers equally poor and the community knows it. There is no more to do there,” UNITE HERE Local 1 President Henry Tamarin said in a written statement. “The reclusive owner lives in Geneva and Tel Aviv and hasn’t been to Chicago since the strike started. We don’t see getting a contract here, and we have many more battles to fight for economic justice.”

However, the hotel has long held the strike did not significantly hamper its business.

Coincidentally, the end to the strike came while President Barack Obama was in town for Democratic congressional fundraisers. When he was still a U.S. Senator running for president in July 2007, Obama walked the picket line with union workers outside the hotel. He also walked the picket line in 2003 when he was an Illinois state senator, and told striking workers he’d walk the picket line again as president.

“Four years ago I marched, I’m marching today, I’ll march four years from now,” Obama said at the time.

However, Obama has not been back to the picket line at the Congress Hotel since 2007.

Obama also promised, as president, he would try to rewrite labor law to make it easier for unions to organize new workers, and make it harder for employers to break a strike.

The union said Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also have walked the picket line with the hotel workers.

Peter Andjelkovich, an attorney for the hotel’s owners, said the union offered to end the strike without any concessions from the hotel.

“I was informed yesterday by Mr. [Henry] Tamarin, the president of the union, he handed me a letter indicating that the hotel strike was over effective 12 midnight last night,” he said. “They are offering an unconditional return to work.”

He said there had been no previous indication the union was ready to end the strike, and the hotel made no offers to increase wages or benefits to get its union employees back to work.

“They did not get any concessions, and the way the law operates, if the workers come back to work, they will be paid under the expired contract that expired in 2002,” he said.

The union said, while its workers wages at the Congress Hotel will remain at $8.83 per hour, the standard wage for hotel room attendants in Chicago has nearly doubled from $8.83 per hour at the start of the Congress strike to $16.40 an hour.

However, at the time Congress Hotel workers went on strike, many other union hotels in the city had agreed to raise their wages to $15 per hour in new labor contracts that started in 2003.

Andjelkovich said the hotel does not know how many of the union workers would come back to work, but 130 employees walked out in 2003. The union said it has found jobs for 60 of the striking workers since 2003, and is looking for more. The union said it’s unclear if any of the other striking workers would go back to work at the Congress Hotel.

Since 2003, the hotel has contracted out most of its labor, and has stopped paying insurance premiums for its workers.

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